Cuba spurred memories of the Cape
REG September kept a poem he had written about his father, Nicholas, throughout all his years of exile.
The first line referred to the darkbrown, coppery skin colour of the older man, whose gnarled fingers testified to the days when wicketkeepers wore no protective gloves and broken fingers, subjected to the tyranny of the fast ball, were the order of the day.
Reg remembered his father as a Hemingway-like character, a fisherman whose “eyes so swift to note the change in flight / He was kind and taught me much”.
In the 1930s, September senior would cycle at dawn from the family home on Second Avenue, Harfield Village to fish along the False Bay shoreline. The long, patient casting of the line. The occasional bounty of the catch and then “bringing it home”.
In exile that memory of home would surface, on occasion, with bitter-sweet and painful ease.
A few years after his flight into exile, Reg was part of an ANC delegation attending the Tricontinental Conference in Havana, Cuba in 1966.
On one occasion the South Africans accompanied Fidel Castro into the mountains to visit a trading school and college.
Reg remembered how young people “lined the streets with flags and bunting, waiting for Castro, calling out, ‘Fidel, Fidel, Fidel’.
“He met with the young students after the formalities of his visit had been honoured. They gathered in a field, a huge bonfire was lit and the discussion went on till about four o’clock.”
Later in the week there was an “another episode worth remembering”. The locale, a huge parade centre, reminded Reg of Cape Town’s Grand Parade.
“Fidel was about to address the crowd. Once the army section had passed, the crowd then just surged forward.
“I had a flash of Cape Town in that moment. I saw these people of various shades of brown and black and everything in between surging towards the platform; so typical of my hometown, free and easy.”
“The way people danced at a cultural event was reminiscent of the dancing at the Cape Tweede Nuwe Jaar Karnival.
“We share with the Cubans a similar slave background except they were taken out of Africa, whereas we were dragged from the east. Of course there is also our origin from the East coast of Africa.”
Cape Town and its politics also manifested in an unexpected fashion.
While attending a meeting in a hall of all representatives Reg found himself in line behind fellow exile Isaac “IB” Tabata, the celebrated ideologue of the Unity Movement who had led South Africa in 1963 via Swaziland.
Reg’s account was free of any adversarial malice, describing the moment with a measure of bemused empathy: “Tabata found himself in difficulty when Fidel was hammering the Trotskyites in Latin America.
“Eventually he joined in the tumultuous cheer that swept across the gathering as Fidel repeatedly lambasted the Trotskyites. Poor chap, it must have been a great difficulty.”
He compared that moment with an encounter with one of his teachers at Trafalgar High School.
“I was then 16 years of age. My first and only engagement with Mr Ellis Mercury was unforgettable. We had never talked but I liked the way he related to the students.
“I walked up the steps from the outside and he was monitoring us as we reached the top on our way to our respective classrooms.
“He put his arm around my shoulders in the friendliest way and he said, ‘Reggie, my boy, do not worry, the day we have a strong TLSA (Teachers League of South Africa) our problems will be over.’”
Reg believed Ellis must have had some idea of the turmoil, the inner conflict he was going through over political choices, concerns he raised with Moses Kotane, a Communist Party member, during his visits to the Kotane home on Mount Street in District 6.
The issue: do we go the TLSA way or do we go the Communist Party and Congress way?